Fort Collins discusses new Housing First initiative to address homelessness

Gabriel Go

The City of Fort Collins released an update on homelessness in Fort Collins assessing the issue through the newly-launched “Housing First Initiative” Tuesday night.

The Housing First Initiative is an approach to homelessness which, “connects individuals experiencing homelessness with permanent housing.” According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Housing First seeks to help homeless individuals by connecting them to permanent housing without prerequisites or barriers to entry. These can include sobriety, substance abuse treatments or criminal histories.

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Fort Collins began the Housing First Initiative alongside the Homeward 2020 program and the Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center for Hope in June.

Director of Social Sustainability Beth Sowder said that while the rate of homelessness in Fort Collins has been relatively stable, current data gathering resources are not as robust for decision making. Sowder presented a Point-In-Time Count from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The count plots the number of people experiencing homelessness during one night in January as mandated by the federal department. The count extrapolated around 331 homeless individuals — or 0.20 percent — out of a total population of 164,000 at one point in 2017 . 

“It’s a HUD (Housing and Urban Development) requirement that this Point-In-Time count is done on a single night in January across the nation, to get a snapshot across the entire country,” Sowder said. “We also know it tends to limit us as far as data goes. We need more robust data to make decisions.”

Homelessness has always been a hot-button issue within Fort Collins. The city council recently passed a controversial ordinance which became referred to as “the sit-lie ban.” The ordinance was met with multiple protests earlier this year but was eventually passed in March after being amended. The new ordinance now prohibits leaving personal property unattended on public spaces, and sitting, kneeling or lying within 10 feet of a public restroom. The original ordinance would have also prohibited sitting or lying down for more than one hour in public spaces.

By partnering with the Housing First Initiative and Homeward 2020 programs, the City seeks to gather appropriate data for the Ten Year Plan, which seeks to, “make homelessness rare, short-lived and non-recurring.”

Homeward 2020 was created eight years ago from a collaboration between Colorado State University, the City of Fort Collins and Community Foundation of Northern Colorado. The program’s key focus is fulfilling Fort Collins’ Ten Year Plan on homelessness.

Homeward 2020 Director Holly LeMasurier was present at the work session, where she highlighted the work her organization has done.

“I want to highlight our success creating a strongly coordinated network of community service providers,” LeMasurier said. “These include: crisis response, healthcare, rental assistance, legal assistance. All of these providers are highly coordinated … and ready to support people’s successful transition to housing.”

The Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center for Hope, or the Murphy Center, is a resource center for individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. The center was opened in 2009, and according to their website, “has (since then) served triple the number of people expected.”

LeMarsurier has been working extensively with the initiative’s director, Marla Cleary. LeMarsurier said that their work, while only a few months old, has already been promising.

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“The two major aspects of the project are data collection and housing solutions,” Cleary said. Cleary added that the first phase of the program will consist of identifying individuals who have been homeless for at least six months. “We estimate this initial intake is gonna be about 350 individuals, but this number could fluctuate.”

LeMarsurier said that the initiative’s data-centered approach allows the city to have more accurate assessments of homeless cases.

“We will be able to quantify and monetize, and more specifically (hopefully to) actually resource these things, so we’ll be ready for successful housing placements… that is our hope to have a rigorous investment with the initiative,” LeMarsurier said.

Collegian news reporter Gabriel Go can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @rgabrielgo.